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Fear stalks Kenya's Rift Valley ahead of votes

Burned FOREST, Kenya (Reuters) - When fighting erupted in Kenya after the fiercely disputed 2007 presidential election, 60-year-old Edward Gitau dug a hole in his garden and buried his land title deed.

A farmer works in his field at the Kondo farm in Eldoret 400km (248 miles) west of the capital Nairobia, April 27, 2010. REUTERS/Noor Khamis

Shortly afterwards, Kalenjin supporters of the then opposition leader Raila Odinga torched Gitau’s house and hounded him out of the village. His crime: he was a Kikuyu, the tribe of re-elected President Mwai Kibaki.

As Kenyans prepare to vote in a referendum on constitutional reform in August, many remain haunted by the tribal bloodletting that convulsed east Africa’s largest economy in early 2008.

The new constitution, seen as a crucial step in healing the ethnic divisions that plague Kenyan politics, would curb the president’s sweeping powers and strengthen civil liberties ahead of the next presidential election in 2012.

Even though it is hoped a new legal framework will avert a repeat of the violence which killed 1,300 people, fear still stalks many in Gitau’s Rift Valley province.

“It is not even 2012 and we already feel the tension. If that passes well, then we will have peace,” Gitau said outside the mud-walled and tarpaulin-covered shelter he calls home.

Gitau said he believed the person who wanted him and the Kikuyu dead was a senior minister in the power-sharing government that former U.N. chief Kofi Annan brokered.

More than 300,000 people like Gitau were forced to flee their homes during the fighting. Hundreds are still to return to their homesteads, too afraid of another bout of killings.

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The International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, is in Kenya to start his investigations into alleged crimes against humanity committed by the architects of the post-election fighting.

He has submitted a list of names to the court that analysts say may include several cabinet ministers, politicians and prominent businessmen.

Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, an ally of Kibaki, and Higher Education Minister William Ruto, a one-time political ally of Odinga from the Rift Valley, are both fighting legal battles to try and have their names expunged from a Kenyan rights group report about the post-election violence.

The shells of gutted houses still scar the Rift Valley landscape, their walls daubed with expletives ordering Kikuyus to return to their ancestral lands or be killed.

“They tell us that next time around, they will not burn the houses but will leave our homesteads with severed heads,” one of Gitau’s neighbors said, too scared to give her name.

A local rights group says an arms race is on between the Kalenjin and Kikuyu ahead of the 2012 ballot, prompting fears of a repeat of the violence which sharply slowed growth in east Africa’s largest economy.

“Kikuyus don’t want to be taken by surprise again. Once bitten twice shy,” said a retired security agent who did not want to be named. “And the Kalenjins don’t want to use arrows this time around.”

The northern Rift Valley witnessed the most intense fighting from the start, but the violence spread to Nakuru, Naivasha and the slums of Nairobi as Kikuyus meted out reprisal attacks and other disenfranchised communities vented their anger.

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Tribal rivalries have dogged Kenyan politics since the former British colony won independence in 1963, often intensifying around elections.

“We are hearing that three lorries full of weapons went to a local MP’s house and the guns were buried there,” one resident of Eldoret district told Reuters, declining to be identified for fear of reprisal.

The Kalenjin and other tribes were also building up small armories, said Ken Wafula, executive director of the Center For Human Rights and Democracy.

Land is one of Kenya’s most emotive issues and central to a campaign to shoot down the referendum spearheaded by Ruto. Many feel the Kikuyu were unfairly allocated land in the Rift Valley at independence.

Wafula said some 80 percent of the people living there, who would be considered outsiders, had bought their land on a willing buyer, willing seller basis.

“Now the Kalenjin settlers take advantage of situations like those (elections). Some of them had 20 acres but because they sold their land piece by piece ... when there is ethnic violence and others are forced out, they reclaim the land they had sold without paying back or returning the money.”

Kenya has passed a new National Land Policy with a framework to adjudicate land cases running back to colonial times.

“We cannot really sweep it under the carpet because this problem will continue and if anything it is a justice issue,” said Catherine Gatundu, deputy coordinator at the Rift Valley-based Kenya Land Alliance.

Editing by Richard Lough and Giles Elgood